The enemies we can’t see; Institutional sexism in science in the wake of Hunt

(Edit: If you’re looking for some excellent lady-scientists to follow on Twitter in NZ, check out the two students who organised the Women in Science science, Megan Friesen (@nudibranch) and Rachael Sagar (@inexpectata). You can also follow some of the wonderful the panel speakers including Assoc. Prof Jacqueline Beggs (@JacquelineBeggs), Dr Margaret Stanley (@mc_stanley1) and Dr Christina Painting (@cpaintingnz))

I’m giving myself 35 minutes (Edit: HAH) to write this before I go run an extraction because doctorate.

So recently Nobel laureate Tim Hunt said some unfortunate things about women in the lab and offered a woeful non-apology. The reaction on social media and traditional media has been as predictable and forthright as a shorn-off shotgun. Now the roar of justified anger begins subsiding into a low growl and the question, again, comes around to whether the courthouse of Twitter and social media was “fair” in its treatment of Hunt. In short, we saw the same thing happen in response to Dr Matt Taylor’s shirt.


I do not have an opinion on whether the repercussions of what Hunt said (or indeed of Taylor’s shirt) have been “justified” because, unlike a court ruling, what has happened over the past week can’t be “overruled”. It is what it is. What he said was undeniably stupid; how could we ever measure the damage his views have done? But by that same token, how would we meter out some “acceptable” amount of infamy? We are still coming to grips with what it means to be an even moderately public figure in a hyper-connected world.

It took me a long time to build up the motivation to read the Tim Hunt story and over the past 24hrs I’ve realised why that is: for me, hanging out one sexist to dry is less than half of what needs to happen to improve gender equity in STEM fields. That is not to say that we shouldn’t tackle overtly sexist attitudes when they arise. It’s just that, if you removed every Tim Hunt from every lab in the world this very second, we would still not get an equal number of women in top science positions.

What I’m thinking about of course is institutional discrimination and its other similarly unconscious relations.

At the end of last year, a couple of PhD students in my lab hosted a “Women in science” panel discussion with staff from our department. I had meant to do a write up shortly after but sheer-existential-doctorate-anxiety and field work got in the way (Fig. 1). At this event, the majority of the discussion was about unconscious forms of discrimination rather than social sexism.

Fig. 1: Me circa-December 2014
Fig. 1: Me circa-December 2014

Let me be clear, sexual harassment and social discrimination does still occur in STEM fields and the consequences of these are amplified by gender inequity within STEM and by gender issues within broader society. But at this panel we heard about some other problems that exist within institutions rather than within individuals. So since we’re all still hanging around the bomb site that is the Hunt media circus, let’s keep these in mind:

  1. Female and male scientists behave differently but male behaviour is rewarded.

Begin on a tricky one, why don’t you? Bear with me.

Specifically, the panel suggested that female scientists are less opportunistic than their male peers. Earlier in 2014, ecologist Dr Margaret Stanely demonstrated that female scientists are less likely to request longer talks at conferences compared to male scientists. The panel agreed from observation and personal experience that women are less likely to apply for promotions or other opportunities unless “everything’s lined up” and they feel confident that they can succeed. By contrast, male staff members apply for career advancement or other opportunities the moment they become available – even if they are unlikely to be successful.

Similarly, women scientists often shy from self-promotion and rarely use the word “I” in applications, opting instead for “we” while male scientists barrel on ahead with “I”. To a selection committee, “we” suggests a lack of independence. Associate professor Jacqueline Beggs recalled a situation in which she had to explain this behavioural difference to a male colleague on a selection panel. As piece of advice, a senior lecturer from the audience suggested that women give applications to the toughest male scientist possible for feedback to learn “this is how you write a ‘boy’ application.”

It’s easy to argue “so women just need to modify their behaviour to conform to expectations”. This would help. But this will needs a) time and b) changes in how we expect women behave in broader society. These changes are happening…but on the time scale of generations and societies. If we want to see equity in the STEM fields anytime soon, selection panels, institutions and individuals need to recognise that male and female scientists behave differently and that it is no reflection on their abilities as scientists.

I should point out that, again and again, the panel emphasised that male colleagues do not consciously pigeon-hole their female peers loading them up with pastoral and catering roles and similarly they are generally open to hearing about female colleagues experiences. However, these conversations cannot begin unless women are brave enough to lightly agitate and bring attention.

But while it can be nerve-wracking to have these discussions with male colleagues, it’s even harder to tackle the institutional artifacts of a historically male-dominated space. Of course I’m referring to the lack of provisions to accommodate those managing both work and family. So:

2. The baby elephant in the room

Children were one of the first topics of discussion at the panel itself which advised, in unison: there is no “best” time. Research careers are frankly not accommodating to the responsibilities of “outside life” and this is not unique to STEM. But it’s hard to not be a little disappointed that the institutions boasting some of our most creative and analytical minds presently and historically which have and continue to contribute to our understanding of life and matter at a national and international stage somehow do not have the tools to do something as simple as judge academic output while controlling for parental leave.




Associate professor Beggs recalled being pulled up in an interview for not publishing as many papers during the years following her first child. Her output was measured not in terms of working hours (she was part-time at that point) but instead on the time period, the assumption being that she had been full time given that she was working at all. Dr Stanley was expected to be as productive following the birth of her children as before.

The tools to achieve a more level playing field do exist. In Sweden, funding application submission forms sported a little box asking whether the applicant had been on parental leave during their career. This is such simple way for institutions to take personal circumstances into account and it is disappoint that the Marsden grant does not offer this declaration. Apparently parental leave will be taken into account if the applicant openly offers the information but the onus is theirs.

I have to acknowledge that parental leave could be a problem which affects men and women equally. But as an audience member warned early on in the panel “pick the daddy of your baby wisely…sometimes old fashioned notions win out.”

3. General advice for women in STEM

Needless to say, this does not cover everything that was said. It was an inspiring afternoon and provided a feast for thought. I hope that there will be another panel soon.  Just to close off, here is a list that the panel had for other women in STEM fields (practising scientists and students):

Stand up for yourself. Apply even if you aren’t likely to succeed. Have conversations with peers if you are uncomfortable or disagree. Agitate. Express interest. Ask for help.

Stand up for other women. If you aren’t suited for an opportunity, try to think of someone else who is. Be willing to help them with the application if necessary. Mentor and give opportunities to female students. NB: Truly “give” these opportunities and do not expect that student to succeed beyond any other student. Ask conference organisers if they have female speakers in mind

Find champions and grow networks. Find senior scientists to champion grants. Seek out a range of mentors. Join committees and panels (it looks great on a CV and develops your network). Develop strategies to help you approach other scientists. For example, if you find approaching people at conferences difficult, before attending, write a list of people you want to meet and, no matter how scary it is, get that list ticked off!

And just to give extra emphasis:

Make decisions which allow you to live and work according to your priorities

Be honest about your career and life choices

Have a good week and let’s look after one another, ‘kay?